These are some of the most common questions we hear from folks visiting our store.

Q: Is keeping a saltwater tank more difficult than freshwater?
A: Yes and no. The difference depends upon how much effort you put into the planning and learning period.First, you have to realize that most saltwater fish kept in the home aquarium originate from tropical reefs. These reefs are the most stable environments on the planet. That is to say, in any period of time things don’t change very much. Water quality, temperature, salinity, etc. stay essentially the same. As such, the creatures that inhabit this world have evolved over millions of years without the ability to adapt well to change. That having been said, learning the ideal environmental parameters (salinity, temperature, water quality, etc.) for marine fish in a captive environment can mean all the difference in how successful you can be with a saltwater tank.

The next most important thing is to exercise patience and self-discipline. Setting up a marine tank is best done in slow, precise steps. If you try to “rush” the process, especially moving ahead of your learning curve, you are asking for trouble. It is amazing how many new hobbyists will spend a considerable sum of money on a fish and not remember its name, much less its suitability for their aquarium! An investment in learning what you’re doing will pay off in years of enjoyment.

In summary if you plan a proper environment, take some time to learn, and don’t move to fast, a marine tank should be no harder to keep than fresh.

Q: How can I control algae in my tank?
A: One first needs to understand what algae is. Algae, put simply, is a form of plant life. Like all plants, algae need water, light and food to survive. If all are present, there will always be some algae and this is not, necessarily, undesirable. If one or more of these elements are in excess, the amount and type of algae may become undesirable.The water and light are obvious, but what constitutes algae “food?” Fish waste, uneaten fish food, and decomposing dead plants (or fish), eventually are converted to a high level of the chemical nitrate as well as another chemical, phosphate. Nitrate and phosphate, as most gardeners know, are primary plant fertilizers.

Unacceptable growth of algae, therefore, usually results from an excess of light and/or food. Most tanks do not need 10 to 12 hours of light per day. If we overstock fish, overfeed them, or fail to do regular water changes (to lower the nitrate and phosphate levels, among other things) we can have an algae “problem.”

In addition to keeping “excesses” of light and “plant food” under control, there are some useful creatures that may control undesirable alga growth in the aquarium.

Most popular in freshwater is the fish commonly called a “pleco.” Other useful fish include the “Chinese algae eater,” otolincus catfish (“O” Cat), and the “Flying Fox.”

In Saltwater tanks, assuming there are no predatory fish (such as triggerfish), algae control may be aided by various snails, hermit crabs, urchins, and certain fish such as the Kole (or “Yellow-eye”), tang, and the sailfin (AKA “Lawnmower”) blenny.

Q: I’m new to saltwater fishkeeping. Wouldn’t it be better for me to see if I can be successful with a small tank before I invest in a large one?
A: Usually the only advantage to a smaller tank is a lower initial cost. One of the “secrets” to successful fishkeeping is a stable environment. Smaller tanks are normally more difficult to keep stable and, therefore, more difficult to keep fish in, successfully. Additionally, most hobbyists are eventually tempted to add one more life form to a tank than is appropriate. In a small tank the chance of overstocking is far greater. The old adage thus holds true: to purchase the largest tank that space and budget can accommodate. If space and budget are too much of a problem, avoid the aggravation and don’t get a tank at this time.So, you might ask, “what’s a small tank for saltwater?” Generally the smallest you should start with is a 20 or 30 gallon. Again, larger, such as a 50 or 75 gallon, or larger, is better.

Q: My aquarium is always “cloudy”. What can I do to make it clearer?
There are several possible reasons for “cloudy” water, and most can easily be controlled. If the aquarium is relatively new, the cloudy water may be what is known as “new tank syndrome.” During the first few weeks, biological changes are occurring, involving the growth of nitrifying bacteria, which will ultimately benefit the aquarium by removing toxic ammonia and nitrite produced by the fish. Although microscopic, a large initial “bloom” of these bacteria may give the tank a slightly “milky” appearance. Assuming the fish do not appear stressed (indicating an overabundance of ammonia and/or nitrite), the best course of action is to do nothing and let this cycle complete itself. The water will normally clear up given a little time. If the tank is past its “new” phase, other factors may be contributing to the problem:Overfeeding/overstocking: This is the most common cause of cloudy water. Aquarium filters can only do so much and the water can only absorb so much waste. If feeding is such that there is uneaten food left, or large amount if fish waste, the water will not be clear. It is better to feed only one or two light (what the fish will completely consume in ~ one minute) feedings per day and stock 10% less than the tank capacity.

You have to understand that fish will naturally consume more food than they need. This is because in nature there is much competition for food and fish never know when their next “meal” will come. As such a normal healthy fish can go 3 days without food with little or no ill effects. The trick in the controlled environment of the aquarium is to feed them only what they need and that need is less than most people think.

High Phosphate in tap water: In some parts of the country, tap water contains high levels of the chemical phosphate, either as a natural occurrence, or as a breakdown of certain water treatment chemicals (called polyphosphonates). Tiny particles of phosphate can be suspended in the water and are so light, they do not sink nor can they be removed with most particle filters. The water takes on a white, hazy appearance. The standard treatment here is the use of commercial products containing aluminum sulfate (such as “Brite-n-Clear” or “Pro-Clear”), which will clump the particles together (flocculate them) so that they sink to the bottom and/or are trapped by mechanical filters.

Green water (algae bloom): This is one of the more frustrating problems. While often precipitated by too much feeding or light (more than 10-12 hours/day), it can happen even to properly maintained aquaria. The culprit is a microscopic algae whose spores float through the air until they find a hospitable place to “have a family,” (such as your tank!). Then, almost overnight, billions of these tiny cells turn your tank into “pea soup.” Most filters won’t remove them (remember, they’re microscopic). The first possible remedy could be to try a commercial algaecide. This usually works, although slowly. Do not use this if you keep live plants. Also, you must discontinue the use of carbon filtration during the algaecide treatment. A partial (up to 50%) water change prior to the treatment, plus a cutback in feeding and lighting may increase your chance of success.

Another approach is the use of commercial products that “clump” the algae cells together (such as Kent Marine Green Water controller) with a polymeric chemical, allowing the particles to be trapped by most mechanical filters. Although a more expensive approach, good results can also be had with the use of a fine-particle micron filter, such as the Magnum TM filter from Marineland Products. If necessary, this can be used with “clumping” chemical product additions for more efficient particle removal. A third and very effective approach is to utilize flocculating compounds in combination with a commercial algaecide.

Treatment chemical overdose. This last category of cloudy water problems is a case of “if a little is good, more must be better.” This is sometimes seen with various “tap water treatments,” especially those with a “slime coat” replacement, such as aloe vera. If the instructions call for a cap full, and you add a cup full, cloudy water may result.

Q: Help, my fish is sick! Why?
A: If you expect a short answer to this question, you need to better understand the basics of fish disease. There are many books written on the subject, but understanding a few basic principles will get you focused on the correct response to problems that occur.First of all, fish do not normally get sick “for no reason at all.” Secondly, nature has given them defense against, and possible cure for, most problems. This, as with humans, is their immune system. The immune system, when working properly, provides a host of chemical and physiological Reponses to repel many invading organisms, including parasites, bacteria, fungus, and viruses.

Quite often, a diseased fish is lacking in a properly working functioning immune system. This normally occurs due to some current, or recent, stress situation. Stress in fish, as in humans, causes the excretion of a hormone called adrenaline. In fish, and probably in humans, adrenaline can cause a temporary malfunction of the immune system. As such, the fish is a position analogous to a human with an immune deficiency (such as AIDS). The deficiency itself doesn’t sicken you, but you have no natural defense against disease causing organisms in your environment. Furthermore, it is important to understand that any possible cure will probably not work without a functioning immune system.

So what does this all mean? If I have a sick fish, I need to first evaluate possible stress factors. Is there an environmental problem (ammonia or nitrite in the water, a temperature problem, rough handling or fighting with other fish, etc.)? If I can pin the stress problem down and correct it, my chances of saving the fish are better. Once past that, it is important to determine the type of disease. Many fish keepers call everything “ich” and dump in treatments that rarely work. Aside from physical trauma (injury) we can categorize most fish disease into three general categories

Parasites: Here we find the ever-popular “ich” as well as a host of other tiny bad guys that usually attack the skin of fish and “suck the life” out of them. In their adult stage (when it’s almost too late for cure), they are usually visible to the eye, perhaps as tiny salt-size dots or “velvety” coating. Depending on the parasite and the severity, there are several commercial preparations that may afford relief. Don’t guess which one – always consult your professional aquarium store personnel! Like most medicines, there can be side effects and complications.

Bacteria & Fungus: These organisms are similar, often hard to differentiate to the novice’ eye, and are similarly treated. The normal treatment is some sort of antibiotic or anti-fungal agent. At best, which medication to use is an educated guess. Please consult a qualified, knowledgeable, aquarium store person for the proper treatment. There are some variables with respect to fish type, location of infection, pH, temperature, etc. that will determine the best treatment for individual cases. In some advanced cases, it may be best to not treat, as the fish is beyond hope. In this situation the fish is only going to suffer through treatment prior to death. In some cases euthanasia, although often unpalatable, is the best option. Indiscriminate treatment with antibiotics can at the least negatively upset good bacteria in the tank, and at the worst contribute to antibiotic-resistant mutations of bacteria for which there will be no cure. All too often, an unknowing hobbyist will dump antibiotics into the tank for every imagined problem. This indiscriminate use of medications can, and will, make treating future problems more, if not impossible, to treat.

Viruses: This final category of pathogen is usually untreatable and the fish will either recover on its own, or not. It is, fortunately, not all that common. All you can do is to provide the fish with the cleanest, most stable environment and hope nature does the rest. It is important to consult with your fish professional to ensure you are not needlessly, and dangerously, “treating” an untreatable condition.

Other: Finally, fish can be afflicted with a wide range of other ailments, including benign and malignant tumors, aneurisms, and a host of other maladies that other life forms encounter. While these conditions are untreatable, they are fairly rare.

Q: My saltwater aquarium is too hot – do I need a chiller?
A. In most cases, no. Chillers, while they work, are very expensive, noisy and can be maintenance intensive.Usually a far better solution is to mount an inexpensive fan in a location where it blows across the surface of the tank’s water. This evaporates water, while cooling in the process. As an example: two computer fans (please use 12 volt fans w/ power converter to reduce shock hazards) will reduce the temperature of a 75-gallon aquarium by as much as 10 degrees!! Evaporation rates will increase, but water added back is far less expensive than a chiller.

NOTE: Apply common sense to your hobby. More often than not, hobbyist “hear from a friend”, “read in a book”, or “saw on the Internet” supposed facts. Often these “facts” are the result of hearsay, legend and myth. Let your common sense be your guide! The following are some examples:

“Saltwater aquariums are difficult to take care of, you have to check the salt level everyday, and you are always testing the water. In freshwater you do not have to do this.”
Response: Where is the salt going to go? If the water evaporates, the salt stays (hence “the water evaporates”). Simply top the tank off with fresh water, and the salt level (specific gravity) will return to previous non-evaporated levels. Individuals who test their water daily will become extremely frustrated very fast. Conditions do not change that fast, and most often the inhabitants of the tank will change behavior, indicating a potential problem.
“But I was told this filter was ‘ good for a 50 gallon aquarium’: or ” But I was told this was ‘ a complete setup’, why do I need a new filter?”
Response and clarification: There are three main components to aquarium filtration: Mechanical (particle filtration), Chemical (chemical filtration), and Biological (digestion of fish waste and other pollutants). Without proper filtration your aquarium will not function or balance properly. Get the correct tool for the job! A filtration system does not care how many gallons of water it is filtering.